Q: How do you sell more?
 A: Try Content Selling

Q&A

Content marketing is generally considered an approach used primarily by the marketing department. It’s designed to achieve marketing objectives such as stronger brand awareness and loyalty that, over time, contribute to bottom line results (check out this Inc. article that explains why content marketing can be so effective).

What often gets overlooked, though, is that content can, and arguably should, also be used directly by the sales team as a tactical tool to grow sales and stem redemptions and defections. Properly used, content selling can answer three of the biggest questions salespeople ask when trying to increase their net sales:

  1. How do I create more opportunities to sell?
  2. How do I demonstrate why a client/prospect should choose my products/services (which is especially important when selling intangibles like financial and professional services as well as technology solutions)?
  3. How do I reduce redemptions/defections?

As a former salesperson myself, I can talk from direct experience about how content selling can help meet these challenges.

But first, let’s clearly define content selling. To me, it’s a two-fold process made up of 1. developing insight or perspective (aka, content) that’s of high value to your client or prospect, and then 2. packaging that content in ways that the sales team can distribute and use directly with their clients and prospects, whether through PowerPoint, email, white papers (or shorter derivatives), tweets, posts, or whatever.

So given that definition, let’s look at how content selling can answer these three sales quetsion.

How do I create more opportunities to sell?

In my previous life as a mutual fund wholesaler serving financial advisors, and later in my efforts to sell professional services and technology solutions, one of my biggest challenges was having a good reason to call/meet my prospects and clients. It wasn’t enough, to take an example from my mutual fund days, to provide market or fund/product updates – that information was readily available online and wasn’t necessarily timely or insightful – in other words, it wasn’t that valuable. What I needed was something that would help my clients/prospects with their “higher order needs” – needs that went beyond the product or service I was selling and related to bigger, more important, issues related to their overall business challenges. Developing the right content, based on insight that is relevant, timely and valuable to advisors (often related to their bigger business challenges), would have helped me earn the right to have more conversations/meetings in the first place. And the more conversations I could have had, the more opportunities I would have had to sell.

Not only that, but providing valuable content on an ongoing basis may alone create sales opportunities that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. According to one financial advisor I recently spoke with, one of the wholesalers she deals with (but doesn’t yet do a lot of business with) is so good at adding value that she’s finding reasons to do business with him, despite his company not being on her preferred list. Content selling can be the process that enables a salesperson to add enough value that their prospects will find reasons to do business with them.

How do I demonstrate why a client/prospect should choose my products/services?

This is one of the biggest challenges that exist in all of business because today’s environment is defined by commoditization and an over-abundance of product/service options to choose from. In that situation, how does a salesperson express what makes their product/service/organization valuably different so that the business is given to them?

When content selling is done properly, the content developed is based in part on the  organization’s competitive advantage – it needs to tie back to the things that the organization does best (see my post on the Three Simple Circles of Content Marketing for more details on how to create effective content). When I was selling professional services, the most important thing for me to know was how our services differed from the competition and could better help our clients/prospects with their challenges. With that known, content was then created that always explicitly tied back to our competitive advantage, clearly demonstrating why our clients/prospects should choose us over the competition.

How do I reduce redemptions/defections?

By having a history of conversations in which really valuable content is shared for the betterment of your client/prospect, you become more of a business partner than just a sales person (as cliche as that may sound). The benefit of that change in status is that In times of difficulty, when your product or service isn’t meeting expectations, it is this status of “business partner”, based on a historical provision of value, that will motivate your clients to cut you more slack than they may have otherwise – assuming the failures are short term in nature (there’s no getting around a poor product or service).

Going back to the earlier anecdote, if a financial advisor is trying to find reasons to do business with you before even becoming a client because you’re adding so much value, imagine how many chances your current clients will give you if you or your products/services do mess up, based on the history of value you’ve provided. Your client’s patience won’t be infinite but you’ll definitely have more time to fix the problems before she redeems/defects than you would have had without a history of providing really valuable content.

And that’s the potential for an effective content selling approach – not only does it earn you the privilege to have more conversations in the first place, as well as the ability to clearly differentiate you from your competition, it also helps you develop a relationship that warrants second and third chances in the off chance they’re needed.

And that leaves only one question left for your client to answer: where do I sign?

If client-centricity is your holy grail, content should be your chalice

For many of the most successful organizations, becoming more client-centric is the holy grail. Think of Zappos, The Four Seasons, Starbucks, even Apple (arguably). These organizations have realized that it’s not about their products or services – which have often become commoditized – but about the client’s/prospect’s needs; “the market” is not looking for your product or service but rather a solution to a problem they have, the ‘ole “don’t tell me about your grass seed, tell me about my lawn.”

As a member of the C-suite (CEO, President, CMO, etc.) or the VP coterie looking to make your marketing efforts (and organization) as client-centric as possible, and get the best possible long-term return on those efforts, content marketing should be one of your key vessels, if not the key vessel, to deliver those returns.

The reason is that, when done well, content marketing is about understanding the higher order needs/challenges/knowledge gaps of your clients and prospects, and creating/distributing content that will address those needs/challenges/gaps in the most direct way possible – client-centricity is inherent in the best-in-class process, as I’ve often talked about. Many organizations, however, tend to focus exclusively on how best to position their new product against the competition or how to spin their current product features into benefits. Both are important exercises to do, but both are really about your company, not the client.

The more successful alternative to being client-centric is…(and this shouldn’t be surprising)… to get a deep understanding of the key needs of your market! This requires a little more investment in acquiring that knowledge but will always result in more insight into said client. When this insight is applied by using great content, it often results in a longer term relationship with the client/prospect and higher level of trust because they see your organization as a source of valuable information that they return to over and over. And if your content is deemed valuable, that will increase the probability of being included in the consideration set when a purchase decision is to be made because your content is top of mind.

And this doesn’t even consider the benefits strong content offers on a tactical level. When you have a problem, what’s the first thing you do? You probably Google it and the results that are featured are generally those that many others have found to be the most helpful/valuable. To be the most helpful/valuable (i.e., client-centric) you need content that is judged as such, which is where the research comes in since your content should be guided by it – an approach that, as I previously mentioned, is inherent to the best content marketing programs.

By creating and distributing content created based on deep insight into your market, your level of client-centricity should soar and, from a brand and business growth perspective, your cup should runneth over. Here! here!

The secret sauce of content marketing success has little to do with content marketing

It’s kind of like jumbo shrimp or efficient government – a contradiction in terms.

But the reality is, the secret sauce of running an effective content marketing program isn’t about content marketing at all but about getting senior executive buy-in – without that, it’s very difficult to achieve any lasting success, and stakeholders will soon lose their taste for the investment.

Executive buy-in occurs when the c-suite – CEO, President, CFO, CMO, etc – are all dipping into the same sauce (so to speak) and 1. understand the benefits that content marketing can achieve, 2. appreciate the sometimes-extended time it takes to get initial results, and 3. trusts the leader running the program. In other words, the c-suite is committed to investing the time and resources into a program and willing to give the it enough time to succeed and prove itself.

Without this executive buy-in, you may experience one or more of the following:

  • a desire by the c-suite for broad consensus regarding the content itself that inhibits timely production and distribution and, in some cases, the ability to create true thought leadership (can you really be a thought leader through consensus, which is often just the middle ground or “average” of different perspectives?)
  • a need for hands-on involvement in the editorial development by people whose time would be better spent elsewhere (is the CFOs time really best spent editing a whitepaper if the relevant subject matter experts have been consulted?),
  • resistance from others within the organization whose expertise is required to develop content (the aforementioned subject matter experts),
  • ultimately, the premature shut-down of the program before results have been generated.

With executive level buy-in, many (if not all) of the above challenges will either be avoided completely or can be relatively easily managed, meaning that you never get to the last bullet (literally and figuratively).

So, how do you ensure you have this buy-in? You can do a few things:

  • do some deep probing at the start of the initiative with key stakeholders to assess their level of understanding and commitment to the program,
  • “socialize” (i.e., talk with lots of people, formally and informally, about) the benefits of content marketing and the problems it solves throughout the organization, especially at senior levels
  • try to establish, and get agreement from key stakeholders on, concrete goals, budget, and timelines of the program,
  • keep key stakeholders in the loop on progress to show momentum, even if its progress in development of the strategy, and
  • set some relatively easy goals, either internal or external, to earn some quick wins, again showing progress and momentum.

If buy-in is effectively achieved, then stakeholders throughout the organization will treat your program like my favourite sauce, Frank’s Red Hot – they’ll want to put that sh*t on everything!

The best content marketers are servant leaders

When done well, content marketing is about helping clients and prospects. You can think of the role it plays as filling a knowledge gap or helping to solve a problem or need experienced by the audience (preferably, a higher-order need). It is one of, if not the, most client-centric approaches to marketing/business.

To help maintain this approach in practice, many content marketers think of themselves as educators or problem solvers vs. marketers or sales people. This frame reminds them of what their ultimate goal is – to educate or solve problems, not to sell products or services (although this is what naturally results when done well). In this same vein, the concept of being a “servant leader” can also be a useful concept to use.

A servant leader (or one who practices servant leadership) is defined by its originator Robert Greenleaf as one who “…focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid…” In other words, a servant leader puts “the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.” Traditional leadership may achieve this same goal but it would be seen as a means to a leadership end or a by-product, whereas servant leaders consider it the end itself.

It is this definition of servant leadership that aligns almost perfectly with the best content marketing. Both have an audience first perspective; both are focused on helping that audience and consider helping the end itself, not just the means; and both often see organizational success (whether it’s leadership or selling) as the natural by-product of their efforts.

So if you want to become the best content marketer, start thinking of yourself as a servant leader.

 

The List: best-in-class content marketing examples and resources

In my travels I’m often asked to provide examples of best-in-class content marketing and sources of information/guidance on how to “do” content marketing.

As a result, and for a while now, I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for good case studies to share and good books/resources to recommend. So, without further ado, here’s my list – enjoy!

[As a side note, you'll notice that this list is heavily skewed to financial services - not because the category has cornered the market on this stuff but because that's the industry I'm in. Regardless, though, the companies mentioned below still demonstrate the principles of good content marketing: knowing their competitive advantage, addressing lower and higher order needs, and publishing themes and topics that reinforce their advantage and address the needs.]

Best in Class Examples

Toyota video

Financial Services
http://www.frankbyocbc.com/index.html (retail bank based in Singapore)

https://www.americanexpress.com/us/small-business/openforum/explore/

http://brighterlife.ca/ (by Sunlife)
http://www.thefinancialist.com/ (by Credit Suisse)
https://globalconnections.hsbc.com/canada/en (B2B)
http://www.thinkmoneytrader.com/ (by TD)

Technology

http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/news/stories/index.html

https://www.custedge.com/ (by SAP)

http://www.gereports.com/

Consulting
http://www.content-loop.com/ (by Cap Gemini)

Other B2C

http://www.redbullmediahouse.com/

Books
Epic Content Marketing, Pullizzi
Content Rules, Handly, Chapman
Inbound Marketing, Halligan
Youtility, Baer
The Challenger Sale (there’s also a site called Challenger marketing which has a great case from Xerox about leveraging higher order needs: http://www.executiveboard.com/exbd/marketing-communications/challenger-marketing/index.page?)

Blogs/newletters
Inbound Hub – Marketing
The Content Strategist
Ann Handly – content Marketing
Content Marketing (Forbes)
Content Marketing Institute
Copyblogger
Heidi Cohen
Inbound Hub – Insiders
Marketo marketing blog
Social media today
Sparksheet
Marketing profs
Contently
Opentopic
Openview weekly

 

 

 

Don’t trust native advertising? Blame the brand, not the publisher

The title of a recent post by Contently asked the question, “Can publishers convince consumers to trust native advertising?” Unfortunately, I think Contently is putting the onus on the wrong party.

Publishers like The Globe and Mail or New York Times shouldn’t have the sole responsibility for trying to convince their readers to trust native advertising – they shouldn’t even have the majority ownership of that problem. It should be the primary responsibility of the companies who have developed the sponsored content. It’s their job to create a brand that is so trusted by the market that readers will still trust that the sponsored content has their best interests in mind, because that’s the real problem. When a reader sees that content is “sponsored”, they immediately think someone’s trying to sell them something – I know I do. Without that trust in the brands themselves - or in other words without trusting that the brands have the readers’ best interests  at heart - it will be difficult for any publisher to convince a reader that native advertising isn’t there to sell them something.

A Christmas content gift for Frank’s Red Hot

I’m a big fan of Frank’s Red Hot – I put that sh*t on everything. Not only do I enjoy the sauce, but I’ve really enjoyed their past commercials as well. The brand’s got a great personality that seems consistent with the product and it all works in complete alignment as far as I can tell.

So, being in the holiday spirit, here’s a small content gift to Frank’s. It’s not what most would consider content – a blog post, whitepaper, video, etc. – it’s an entirely different type of content. The content is the contents of every Frank’s Red Hot bottle applied.

Imagine a pop-up restaurant (naturally called Frank’s) where every single item on the menu is made with Frank’s Red Hot – even the drinks – and each patron gets to take home a small cook booklet (or maybe it’s the menu itself) detailing how each item was prepared, not to mention the opportunity to buy the sauce itself! For those already big fans of the sauce, it would create immediate buzz and business by giving those fans new ideas, not to mention the specific instructions, on how to use it. For those not yet familiar with the sauce, it would create awareness for the different ways Frank’s can be used in the kitchen (and bar). If you could find a brand name chef who’s a fan, it would drive awareness in both segments even more. It’s a win win for everyone.

So Merry Christmas Frank’s! I’m already looking forward to my Christmas dinner, where I’ll be putting that sh*t on everything.

Know your market well enough to give them the bottle, not the money

I was in an elevator recently, listening to two others talk (there was only three of us there so I couldn’t really help it).

The woman said to the man, referring to her feelings about receiving different birthday gifts, “Don’t give me $25 – give me a $25 bottle of wine. If you give me $25 dollars, I’ll be like ‘what the hell? That’s all I’m worth?’ But if you give me a $25 bottle of wine, I’ll be like ‘wow – a $25 bottle of wine – cool!’”

Relatedly, best-in-class content marketing is about providing valuable content (regardless of the type) to your clients and prospects. To be more specific, it’s about providing valuable content as judged by the audience to be valuable, not as judged by the organization providing the content. From the conversation above, we know that the woman (i.e. the audience) attaches a lot more value to a $25 bottle of wine than she does to the money itself, even though each is monetarily worth the same. To her, there’s added value in the bottle.

For content marketers, the only way to figure out this distinction is to know your audience so well that you can clearly distinguish what they value. That will, in part, be determined by knowing what problems they have and how important they are – the more important the problem, the more valuable the solution will be. For the above-mentioned gift recipient, she may have had the problem of either really liking wine but not knowing what’s good OR not being able to justify buying a good bottle for herself. Either way, and whether the gift giver knew it or not, he was solving an important problem for her with the bottle and thus giving her added value.

As a content marketer, it’s your job to figure out the problems your audience has and provide them content that helps solve those problems. If you’re able to really understand those problems and the value to your audience of solving them, you’ll always be able to give them the bottle, and not just the money.

Clear as mud: content marketing in a nutshell…for my sister

“Hey, I read your blog today,” my sister said to me one day.

Stunned silence. I’ve got to admit, I was a little confused. I didn’t think anyone read my blog. I needed to clarify.

“What do you mean?” I finally asked, my in-depth investigative reporting techniques coming to the fore.

“I mean I read your blog today,” she said.

That definitely clarified things.

“What did you think?” I asked.

“It was good,” she said, as a sort-of cloudy look came across her face – the look that I took to mean, “I don’t get it – this whole content marketing thing. It’s about as clear as mud.”

And I realized that I hadn’t made the case, so to speak, for what content marketing is and why it’s a valuable marketing approach. So here, for my sister, and anyone else reading that’s still unclear about what content marketing is and why it’s valuable, is content marketing in a nutshell.

Let’s start with the environment in which we all live (and buy) in, and consider these facts:

  • some claim that the average person is exposed to more than 5,000 brand messages a day, either through print, digital, audio, or video. At this point, we’ve all become masters of filtering out ads – most of us don’t even see them anymore
  • Google search is quickly becoming the number one tool people use to solve their problems, whether the problem is finding a great restaurant, figuring out how to waste five spare minutes in an entertaining way, or learning about the different options you can have in a new car
  • “consumers” have so many products to choose from, and there’s so much messaging around them by sellers, that they’re getting burned out hearing about your product – they don’t care. What they care about is solving the problem they currently have, whether it’s an eating problem, a boredom problem, or a transportation problem

So, what these stats point to is a consumer tired of “interruption advertising” and being sold to AND who increasingly is using online means to solve their problems. How is a selling organization supposed to behave in order to align with cultural norms yet still sell stuff?

That’s where content marketing comes in to play. Content marketing is a very customer-centric approach to marketing where the customers/prospects and their problems are the centre of everything – not the organization’s products or services – and solving those problems becomes the raison d’etre of the selling organization. As a result, the selling organization doesn’t promote itself or its products, it stays focused on trying to help customers/prospects fix their problems. If done well, this will create a positive feeling in the customer’s/prospect’s mind towards the brand offering the valuable information. As well, by offering this valuable problem-solving information on a regular basis, it also keeps the brand top of mind so that when the customer/prospect is ready to buy a solution to their problem, the positively-associated, top of mind brand is automatically included in the consideration set.

As an example, think about one of the most successful brands using content marketing – Red Bull. Red Bull, for those living in a cave for the past 10 years, is an energy drink and focuses much of its marketing efforts on developing and distributing awesome videos (as in, videos that create a feeling of awe) about extreme sports. None of them mention the drink or the benefits of the drink – the leave that to other forms of marketing (like advertising). Red Bull’s content (in this case videos) is intended to create a strong and positive association between extreme athletics, a feeling of awe, and its brand so that when someone is considering buying an energy drink, they remember Red Bull’s videos and the feelings they inspired, and are inspired themselves to buy the drink over the competitors.

Or consider a small consulting business that’s trying to grow. Using the principles of content marketing, they identify a common problem in their target market that that have the capability to solve, and invite some of their clients, prospects, and subject matter experts to discuss the issue at no cost to the participants – they don’t present their products or services but only act as a normal participant. The group has a productive and engaging half day, during which someone from the consulting firm has been taking notes about what was said. The note taker later reviews the notes and packages up the most valuable points into a whitepaper that is given to the participants for free, as well as to other clients and prospects. In this way, the consulting firm has gathered valuable information that addresses a commonly shared problem and provides it to their target market at no cost. The recipients, having gained valuable knowledge, start to develop a positive association with the consulting firm, and if this process is regularly repeated, the consulting firm stays top of mind as a potential solution for the discussed problem as well as other related problems. When a prospect or existing client organization has a problem that the consulting firm has positioned itself as being able to help fix, the consulting firm gets included in the consideration set for purchase, which represents potential business that may never have presented itself without content marketing.

This same approach can be used by any company regardless of size or market to sell any product or service, regardless of B2B or B2C. There are, of course, nuances to it that vary by all these factors, but as an approach, it works equally well for all organizations.

And that, in a nutshell, is what content marketing is all about and why it’s a valuable approach.

Clear as mud, sis?

How to become a thought leader without writing one original word

When business people think about thought leadership, many picture the classic whitepaper, dense with insights and commentary, culled from the leading experts within the organization. They believe the goal of a thought leadership program is to demonstrate or develop the organization’s credibility and leadership in a specific subject matter area. What’s often missing, though, is the recognition that for a thought leadership program to be effective, it must not only demonstrate the organization’s brilliance, but it also must offer content that its market deems valuable. Content that makes the organization look brilliant but doesn’t fix any client/prospect problems or fill key knowledge gaps for them is a poor program. And in this misunderstanding lies an opportunity.

You see, these same business people also often reject the idea of content curation as an important part of an effective thought leadership program. They believe that, by definition, thought leadership must originate within the organization in order to demonstrate its thought leadership/credibility/expertise. But as mentioned above, this narrow view neglects the need to also offer value to the market, and that is where content curation can come into play.

Content curation is, at its simplest, the choiceful selection and/or aggregation of theme or topic-focused third-party content. It doesn’t include original content from the curating organization, which is why it’s often passed over as part of a thought leadership program. And while this is true – curation doesn’t demonstrate the expertise of the curating organization – it still offers value to the market because it helps the market more easily find the information they want. The service of curating valuable information on behalf of clients is itself valuable, and so demonstrates the organization’s leadership, not just in their chosen subject area, but also in helping clients and prospects solve their problems. And ultimately, that should be the goal of any thought leadership program – to help clients and prospects solve their problems or fill their knowledge gaps. If that can be done, whether through curation or original content, then being recognized as a thought leader will be a natural outcome.